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Paul Meecham: Overture to a love affair

Skilled in the art and business of orchestra leadership, Paul Meecham wasn’t looking to leave the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) where he served as president and CEO since 2006. But coming to Utah had several selling points—and ultimately, an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I had never been to Salt Lake City before so it’s not like I had a love affair with Utah—although I think I will develop one quickly,” Meecham says. “It was a combination of a bunch of things that intrigued me even before I got on a plane. And of course once I saw it, I quickly started to fall in love with it.”

One reason? “It’s clear that the orchestra is deeply embedded in the cultural life of Utah,” says Meecham. “There’s a lot of really great things going on here.”

As president and CEO, Meecham will work closely with Thierry Fischer, music director for the Utah Symphony, and Christopher McBeth, artistic director for the Utah Opera. In fact, a selling point for Meecham was the collaboration of the symphony and the opera. “I’ve never been involved directly in opera,” Meecham says.

He was also attracted to the USUO’s educational programs, outreach to Utah schools, and involvement in the Utah community at large.  Although Meecham isn’t looking to immediately shake things up, he sees growth opportunities, particularly in audience development.

Meecham’s vast experience will help him tap into that potential in this new role. In addition to serving as president and CEO of BSO, he has served more than 20 years in executive management roles at the London Sinfonetta, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Seattle Symphony.

Looking at USUO as a business, Meecham is responsible for it all—from meeting projected revenues and managing expenses to securing donations to raise money not covered by ticket sales. But this is nothing new for Meecham. Following a period of significant financial instability, he immediately restored the BSO’s fiscal confidence with consecutive balanced budgets.

Meecham pays tribute to those who laid USUO’s foundation while discussing the natural change among orchestra personnel, as several members are retiring. There have been 34 changes in the last five years, when there are usually one to two retirements in a season. While the churn is definitely a challenge, Meecham sees it as an opportunity to attract new and more diverse audiences.

“You’ve got a lot of new wonderful players coming in—new ideas, a new cohort of musicians who can help us reach the next generation audience. That’s a real opportunity,” he says.

Arts organizations continually think about where the next generation’s audience will come from and how to connect with them. “When you’ve actually got more than a third of your orchestra that’s in that millennial generation, that’s a real asset to be leveraged,” he says. “It’s a real exciting opportunity to figure out how our newest musicians can be part of how we grow our audiences for the future.”

For Meecham, appealing to diverse audiences is all about using a broad range of symphonic music to draw people into the live experience. He notes there is high-quality symphonic music being written in all kind of mediums including music written for video games, Harry Potter and music composed by John Williams.

“Some of it is extraordinary,” Meecham says. “The trick is to figure out how to get that balance right so that those audiences might in the future also want to hear Beethoven or Mozart.”